Monday, November 11, 2013

I can't cut it.

I fell asleep on the tram the other night. This happens far too often - it's only a matter of time until I wake up to find myself in Belgium at 1am, robbed of my wallet and shoes. As the streetcar twists its way around Amsterdam's canals, a prerecorded voice announces the stops, and like a dog who obeys his owner's commands without understanding what the words mean or being able to pronounce them, I listen intently to ensure I don't miss the stop near my hotel. In between the speakers announcing Nieuwezijds Kolk and Prinsengracht, the conductor rings the tram's bell as we cross through an intersection. The bell is gentle, but we all know what it's really saying - "Get out of my path, you stoned, pot-smoking tourist!" All of these sounds orchestrate into a symphonic lullaby in my ears, and the gentle rumbling of the tram over the old tracks rocks me to sleep.

The other night, my slumber was startling interrupted by the speaker declaring the one Dutch word I know: "Zuid" (it means "south" and is pronounced like "Zowd"). I quickly punched the stop request button, scanned my chip card, and exited the tram. It wasn't until my feet had hit the pavement that I emerged from my stupor and realized Zuid was the stop for my office - my hotel was another 2 kilometers away. As I began my long walk back, a rain cloud burst above, absolutely drenching me. As the water seeped through my blazer, it was as if everything was going wrong, but all I could do was emit a joyful smile. 24 hours earlier, this joy would not have been possible.

2013 has been the most difficult year in the record books for me. I could go into detail, but I don't want to turn this post into a pity party. Also, I've noticed that when you bare your soul on a topic you've been struggling with, there's often a tendency for peers to belittle your struggle by comparing your life to someone whose situation is worse than yours. For example, I once confided in a friend that I had a rough week at the office, and his response was "hey, at least you have a job to complain about." I don't see any difference between that response and me telling a friend whose parents are going through a difficult divorce "hey, at least your dad is alive, mine's dead!" It's not compassionate, it's hurtful. Not to mention it's moot - many of the reasons I've had a tough year are people close to me are in situations worse than mine, and I haven't been able to help them as much as I wish I could. So I'll just sum it up by saying I've spent most of the year at what I thought was the end of my rope. After one particularly difficult week in Amsterdam, I spent the drive home after the long flight shouting at God. "I can't take any more!" I yelled at Him through the sunroof. Thirty seconds later, an uninsured motorist who had lost control of her vehicle t-boned the new car I had purchased a mere two weeks before. Apparently He thought I could take some more. Needless to say, I'm ready for 2014. I'm already preparing for our New Year's Eve party because I can't wait to stick 2013 on a pyre and set it ablaze like in a viking funeral.

I've tended to blame this year's troubles on money. First, I thought if I just had more of it, I could fix everything. Then I felt guilty for wanting more money, so I figured my lust for money must be the problem. Perhaps if I could just take out a scalpel and remove that desire from my heart, then surely all my angst would disappear. A few nights ago, I was struck with a bout of insomnia (which often happens when I fly to Europe and my body hasn't adjusted to the time difference yet). So at 3am, I passed the time reading my Bible, and praying for God to help me abolish my love for money. As I sat there in silence, God spoke to me. Not an audible voice, but rather a gentle whisper emanating from my chest and implanting words in my brain, saying: "This isn't about money. This is about your pride."

Before I continue, I'd like to acknowledge how absurd it is for me to claim I heard from God. I'm sure my unbelieving friends would have some very reasonable explanations for it - maybe even biological or psychological explanations for why it was just a message from my subconscious. Yet before you lump me together with the mentally ill and those who commit atrocities while claiming "God told me to," allow me to offer up a few observations of what these "communications" have had in common, and what have set them apart from my usual mind wanderings and daydreams. I don't hear from God on a frequent basis, and there's no pattern for when it happens (I don't do seances, or anything else to provoke them). When they do happen, they're succinct, always in accordance with Scripture, and affirmed by wise people. The messages don't necessarily align with what I see as my best interests, but rather typically cost me something (resources, how I spend my time, etc). They've never been prophetic nor predicted the future. Yet they've always stood in stark contrast with what I want, and point me down a road that is tougher, but worth it.
Some of the $10k worth of damage done to my new car

This instance fit the same pattern, and the message was spot on, whether I liked it or not. Money is a much easier issue to deal with - what I didn't want to admit to myself is I had found my identity in earthly success and not in Christ. I had become known as a man of international mystery, a man who threw lavish parties, and a man who was willing and able to share with his friends in need, and I loved that identity - perhaps even idolized it. When a friend asked me for prayer for a friend of hers who was going through a rough period, I didn't just pray for her, I bought her a plane ticket so she could go visit her friend in need. I loved writing those kind of checks - I found my identity in being a blessing to others. Yet in 2013, I've dealt with issues my checkbook can't solve. I could write a check for all the therapy my friend with a traumatic brain injury needs, but it would bounce. Even Warren Buffet's checkbook couldn't save my other friend from a frivolous yet still painful, reputation-damaging lawsuit. It was high time for me to recognize my identity of being this benevolent benefactor who could bless everyone's lives with hospitality and fix all my friends' problems through my own efforts was an illusion - I am no one's savior. I had to bury my pride and place my burdens at the feet of the Healer, hanging my head while whispering "I can't cut it."

Artist depiction of St. Peter
Recently, my friend Joe taught me about Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus in the Bible. In the Gospels, we see Peter as a headstrong, never-say-die follower of Jesus. When officials come to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and chops the ear off of one of them (John 18:10). When Jesus predicts that Peter will deny Him three times, Peter is offended and claims to love Jesus more than anyone else (Matthew 26:33, Mark 14:29). Of course Jesus was right, Peter did end up denying knowing Him three times, and we see Peter's pride in his identity as the most zealous of the disciples slip into a feeling of dire failure. To add a little salt in Peter's wound, after Jesus dies on the cross and is resurrected from the dead, He goes to Peter and asks him: "do you love me more than these [referring to the other disciples]?" Peter responds: "you know that I love you" and Jesus follows with "Feed my lambs" then asks his question again. Peter responds the same way, then Jesus repeats His question a third time. Peter gives the same response a third time, and Jesus reiterates "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-19). Sure, it's a beautiful dialogue, with Jesus making Peter say he loves Him three times to contrast his three denials, and Jesus reaffirming Peter's call to ministry, yet it's even richer when you look at the Greek, in which the New Testament was originally written.

The Greek language has four different words for love. When Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, He uses "agape," which means unconditional love. However, when Peter responds, he uses "philos," which means friendly or brotherly love. It's as if Jesus is asking Peter: "Do you love me unconditionally, more than all the others, as you said you did?" and Peter is responding "Lord, you know I at least love you as a brother, but you know I can't say agape. You know I denied you, you know I messed up, you know I can't cut it." Yet Jesus is resolute, and reaffirms what he said about Peter before: "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church." (Matthew 16:18) We know this is how history played out - we know Peter was one of the most prolific leaders of the early church. Yet we also know the growth of the church can't be attributed to Peter's zeal and strength, but rather to his inability to say "agape" with a straight face, to his admission of "I can't cut it," to humbly lay the burdens he couldn't control at the feet of the Lord while dedicating his life to following Jesus's simple command: "feed my sheep."
Agape in Greek

As the cold Dutch rain pierced through my expensive blazer, I realized I could dress myself up in fancy clothes, but storms would still fall on me nonetheless. I realized I could travel to foreign countries and take on the appearance of a jet setter, but I'd still fall asleep on public transportation, just like the homeless people in America. I realized I could search for all the job security I'd ever need, but I still would never have enough to fix everything. I needed to follow Peter's example and humbly accept God's call to serve Him while humbly admitting I can't take the credit and shout "agape." I gave up my burden, and it was freeing. I couldn't cut it, my pride and old identity were slowly dying, and it made me erupt with joy.

What I'm listening to during this post:


  1. Great post Jay. Definitely understand the annoyance with people trying to contrast someone's suffering with bigger/worse. It doesn't deal with someone's pain, it just negates it.

  2. Jesus call to deny self and follow lets me know he can be followed in difficult paths but He has a plan that leads to true life. Thanks for your open heart.

  3. Jay, beautiful writing as always. One of the many gifts you have been blessed with. You may be going through a storm, but I am sure God has so many amazing things planned for your future, it could even still happen this year, tomorrow. Thanks for sharing your struggles and always being there to listen to ours.

  4. So, I'm curious about how your interpretation takes into account the final time Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him and Jesus uses the word philos, and the narrator indicates that Peter is hurt by this third question using philos. What do you make of that?

    1. Great question. To me, it sounds like Jesus is saying: "well, if you're not going to love me unconditionally, can I at least count on you to love me like a brother?" I can imagine this hurt Peter because he had found his identity in being that zealous, "rock" disciple, and now Jesus had essentially given up on even asking him for agape. What makes it so cool, in my opinion, is the consistency of Jesus's call for Peter. Even when Jesus only asks for philos because He knows Peter can't earnestly offer agape, He still commands him to feed his sheep. "Be a leader even in your brokenness" is the message I hear. That's just my two cents, though. I don't speak Greek, so I'm learning from listening to more intelligent people and reading commentaries - so please take everything I say/write with a very large grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism.

    2. Thanks for the great and very thoughtful response! I wrote my master's thesis on John 12 and tied it more generally to the second half of the gospel, specifically addressing this particular use of language in the restoration of Peter. My interpretation was much the same!